In 1980, Michael Vale was a working actor who had logged some time on the stage and landed a few small parts in popular TV shows and movies, but was hardly a well-known face. Then Dunkin' Donuts came calling and all that changed for the New York City native.
In the early 1980s, Vale became "Fred the Baker," Dunkin’ Donuts’s sleep-deprived mascot who spent most of the next two decades baking up fresh batches of donuts to be glazed, frosted, and ravenously consumed. Here are 12 things you might not know about the man behind the mug.
1. HE WAS A CLASSICALLY TRAINED ACTOR.
Like many famous pitchmen, Vale’s training was as a classical actor. As a student at the Dramatic Workshop at The New School in New York City, his classmates included (Oscar winner) Rod Steiger, (Oscar nominee) Tony Curtis, and (Golden Globe nominee) Ben Gazzara.
2. HE PLAYED A CAB DRIVER IN A HATFUL OF RAIN.
Vale’s film debut came in 1957, playing a taxi driver in Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain, adapted by Michael V. Gazzo from his play of the same name.
3. HE WAS IN MARATHON MAN.
Vale’s most prominent movie role was as a jewelry salesman in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man in 1976, starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Vale deemed the opportunity to work with Olivier “the most wonderful experience of my life ... He called [us actors] schmucks, but he did it with love.”
4. HE WAS A REGULAR ON BROADWAY.
Of his appearance in a summer stock performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion, Vale once remarked: “I was thrown to the lions.” He made his Broadway debut in 1962, in the appropriately named stinker The Egg, which closed after eight performances. The Impossible Years, which debuted on October 13, 1965, lasted much longer—a full 670 performances.
5. YOU PROBABLY CAUGHT HIM ON ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE CHILDHOOD SHOWS.
From 1961 through 1988, Vale had bit parts on a number of popular television shows, including Car 54, Where Are You?, Kojak, and 3-2-1 Contact (in the recurring role of Soapy Suds).
6. HE PITCHED COTTAGE CHEESE BEFORE HE PITCHED DONUTS.
Before he became the sleepy-eyed face of Dunkin’ Donuts, Vale was a pitchman for Breakstone’s cottage cheese and sour cream. As the irascible “Sam Breakstone,” he starred in a series of commercials where his pursuit of perfection caused him to rant and rave, with each bit ending with a pint-sized terrier nipping at his pant leg. This spot from 1977 co-stars Jeffrey Tambor (a.k.a. George Bluth Sr.).
7. HE PLAYED FRED THE BAKER FOR 15 YEARS.
Vale landed his gig as Fred the Baker in 1982 and played the part for 15 years, until his retirement in 1997. Of the estimated 100 commercials he made in that time, he once joked to Entertainment Weekly that this one was his favorite, because “I got paid twice.”
8. VALE WASN'T THE DUNKIN' MARKETING TEAM'S FIRST CHOICE.
Of the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the role of Fred the Baker, Vale was not the marketing team’s first choice; they were more interested in landing well-known actor-comedian Lou Jacobi. “As soon as Michael Vale walked into the bathroom in his pajamas and said ‘Time to make the doughnuts, time to make the doughnuts,’ we knew,” ad exec Rob Berger told CNN in 2005.
9. FRED'S CATCHPHRASE TOOK ON A LIFE OF ITS OWN.
Vale’s “time to make the donuts” catchphrase became so popular that Dunkin’ Donuts founder William Rosenberg used it as the title for his 2001 autobiography.
10. VALE ONLY EVER MADE ONE DONUT.
While his on-screen persona was a tireless baker, Vale copped to only making one donut himself. “I didn't add the sprinkles or frosting,” he quipped. “I was too exhausted.”
11. FRED'S RETIREMENT WAS KIND OF A BIG DEAL.
When market research indicated that customers did not want to see Fred leave, the company created an entire advertising campaign around his retirement. Bob Dole, Mary Lou Retton, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Larry Bird appeared in a series of commercials, offering Fred their thoughts on retirement. On September 22, 1997, Dunkin’ Donuts even threw Fred a retirement party and parade in Boston, giving away nearly six million donuts.
12. VALE PASSED AWAY IN 2005.
Vale passed away in New York City on December 24, 2005 from complications with diabetes. He was 83 years old.